Natalie Weinstein ’14
On Thursday, Nov. 1 Dr. Ramsey Tracy, Professor of Language and Cultural Studies at Trinity, gave a talk on Dia de los muertos and the significance behind the Mexican culture’s colorful celebration of death. Tracy, along with the help of other professors and students, built a Day of the Dead altar in the lobby of Mather on Nov. 1, that was then taken apart the following evening, in honor of those who are no longer with us. The altar celebrates death and acts as an expression of culture—filled with flowers, pictures, tamales, and papel picado (colorful paper). In her talk, entitled “The Day of the Dead: Tradition, Syncretism, and the Mexican Diaspora,” Dr. Tracy discussed the holiday and the significance behind its celebratory nature.
In Aztec iconography there is a strong focus on the permeability between life and death. Rather than focusing on the finality of death, Aztecs view it as another part of life that should be celebrated. The arrival of Nov. 1 marks the start of the dry season, a season of death, and the last of the fall harvest. This day is a time for those in the Mexican culture to give thanks to the gods and their neighbors who have helped them throughout the year. It is a communal celebration filled with rich colors, food, and life. The cempazuchitl or marigold is the main flower of this celebration due to its bright orange and yellow color. Its amber yellow is tied to the sun and it brings warmth to the spirits that are being honored by the altar. Typically those creating an altar will fill it with marigolds and line the path to the altar with them as well, guiding the spirits to the celebration.
Dr. Tracy discussed the afterlife in the Aztec culture and how it contains various forms of Heaven and Hell. For the Aztecs, Hell is not a place of judgment and it doesn’t have the same negative connotations for them as it does in the American culture. Even though it is not a place of judgment, the Aztecs still believe that the spirit needs a good guide to help navigate Hell so, they would sacrifice a yellow dog next to the deceased to act as their guide in the afterlife. The Aztecs valued bravery above all and a dead warrior or a woman who died in the act childbirth were seen as having an easier afterlife path due to their valor.
In addition, Tracy discussed the importance of the “calaveras,” skull drawings or figures used to celebrate the dead. José Guadalupe Posada was a famous calavera artist who wrote poems and made calavera art and distributed it on the streets. His art used death as a metaphor to critique the culture and society. Calaveras were a perfect form of critique because he could not get in trouble for his depictions of people as skeletons. Set in the afterlife, his drawings did not represent the actual people being critiqued. Tracy explained that in death one can criticize and play in ways that one cannot do in life.
The talk concluded with tamales, authentic Mexican hot chocolate, and pan de muerto, a sweet bread made especially for the holiday. Those in attendance were given a taste of the rich culture and its celebration of life within death.